Leak cost U.S. spy links to Chinese arms sales

A former analyst for the Pentagon’s intelligence service provided China with highly classified information prior to the loss of a major electronic spying operation against Beijing, The Washington Times has learned.

The loss of the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping operation hampered U.S. efforts to track China’s covert arms sales to nations such as Iran, Syria and Pakistan, Bush administration officials said.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they are concerned that the analyst, Ronald Montaperto, who pleaded guilty in June to relatively minor charges related to classified document mishandling, is not being punished properly.

They say both prosecutors and the judge, Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, are not aware of the damage done by Montaperto’s disclosures. Montaperto, a Pentagon employee from 1981 until his 2003 dismissal, is being sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Court papers show that Montaperto admitted he disclosed classified information to Chinese military intelligence officers from 1989 to 2001 but said he could not recall specifics.

A law-enforcement official close to the case said the prosecution of Montaperto was hampered by the FBI’s inability to identify the specific classified information Montaperto admitted passing to China. Tougher charges were sought, but prosecutors and the FBI could not document the highly classified data.

The officials say Montaperto in late 1988 provided a Chinese military intelligence officer with details about Chinese missile sales to Iran and Saudi Arabia in 1986 and 1987, and within weeks the NSA program was compromised.

“The Chinese learned from the leaks where the information was coming from and within weeks or months the [communications] links were lost,” one official said.

The officials say the compromise has allowed China to counter U.S. protests about Chinese missile transfers that violated Beijing’s numerous pledges not to sell weapons to rogue states and unstable regions.

Montaperto could receive 40 to 57 months in prison under sentencing guidelines, but attorneys and friends of Montaperto are seeking leniency and no jail time.

Montaperto has associates among senior intelligence and policy officials at the Pentagon and White House, which is why officials say he likely will receive a light sentence.

Stephen P. Anthony, Montaperto’s attorney, declined to comment, as did the Pentagon and officials from the Defense Intelligence Agency, where Montaperto had worked.

Administration and congressional officials say the case was mishandled and that it contrasts with the more aggressive treatment of former State Department official Donald Kaiser. Kaiser made a plea deal but is now under renewed investigation by federal authorities over his mishandling of classified documents and his affair with a Taiwanese government agent.

Several members of Congress and congressional staff said the Pentagon has not provided the House or Senate with any information about Montaperto’s disclosures or the potential damage. Senate and House members are conducting preliminary inquiries into the case.

The administration officials said no Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have written to the judge characterizing the damage from the case.

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